OMAHA, Nebraska — Louisville and Pittsburgh, the ACC co-champions who split their regular-season matches, gave each other all they had for four sets Thursday night.
But in the fifth, Louisville (31-2) simply demolished the Panthers and moved on to Saturday’s NCAA championship match. The 25-18, 23-25, 25-22, 22-25, 15-2 victory put the Cardinals where no other ACC team has gone before, into the last match of the season.
“Clearly, very proud of this team. An historic moment for our program,” Louisville coach Dani Busboom Kelly said. “But, man, going into this match, we knew we were going to have to work really hard. Pitt is an incredibly hard team to beat. And even when you feel like you have them beat, they will always find a way back in the match.
“I’m just proud of how we came out in game five and finally we didn’t let them back in that set. So just really gritty performance by our players.”
Claire Chaussee, the ACC player of the year, lit it up with 25 kills while hitting .429 to go with two assists, three digs and three blocks. Anna DeBeer had 15 kills, hit .195 and had an assist, five of her team’s 10 aces, seven digs and three blocks. Aiko Jones had 12 kills, hit .310 and had five digs and six blocks.
PK Kong had five kills with one error in 12 attacks and 11 blocks. Four of them came in the fifth set, one solo. Amaya Tillman had four kills, hit minus .059, but had two digs and seven blocks. Raquel Lazaro had a kill, 49 assists, 11 digs and five blocks. Her team hit .273, .750 in the fifth when the Cardinals had six kills in eight errorless attacks. Elena Scott had 28 digs, eight assists and the other five aces.
Pitt’s season ended 31-4 after the Panthers had two kills with eight errors in 17 fifth-set attacks. Courtney Buzzerio had 13 kills, hit .133, and had an assist, three digs and a block. Serena Gray had 10 kills, two ace, two digs and four blocks. Valeria Vazquez Gomez had eight kills, hit .100, and had two assists, an ace and two blocks. Rachel Fairbanks had eight kills but hit .077 and had 29 assists, eight digs and three blocks. Chiamaka Nwokolo had eight kills with two errors in 14 attacks and hit .429 to go with two assists, a dig and four blocks. Lexis Akeo had 14 assists and six digs. Emmy Klika had 13 digs and two assists. Pitt hit .145, minus .353 in the fifth set.
Louisville trailed 19-16 in the third set. After a Pitt timeout at 22-22, Scott had back-to-back aces and the Cardinals won it on a kill by Chaussee, her eighth of the set.
Scott struck again in the fourth, blasting an ace that put Louisville up 15-10. Pitt used its second timeout. DeBeer followed with a vicious attack from the back row that made it 16-10. But Pitt stormed back with three points, so at 16-13 Louisville used its first timeout.
It didn’t help as Pitt clawed back and tied it at 17 on back-to-back hitting errors by DeBeer and then Chaussee. Chaussee’s kill gave Louisville the lead again 18-17. Tillman then had back-to-back blocks and it was 20-17. Pitt wouldn’t fold, and it was 20-19 after Buzzerio tooled the block.
Tillman came up with another block but Kong’s lift left Louisville up 21-20. Buzzerio sent one sailing but Gray’s kill made it 22-21 and Pitt tied it at 22 on an error. Louisville used its last timeout as Pitt scored eight of its last 11 points on Cardinals’ errors.
It didn’t stop there. Pitt went up 23-22 on DeBeer’s hitting error and took a 24-22 lead when Gray pounced on an overpass. Louisville challenged unsuccessfully and the set ended when Gray blocked DeBeer.
In the fifth, Kong and Chaussee blocked Buzzerio and Louisville’s 3-0 lead got Pitt to call time. The Cardinals made it 4-0 when Chaussee fired a set to the deep left corner, it was 5-0 on Jones’ block of Vazquez Gomez, and at 6-0, after Jones and Kong blocked Vazquez Gomez, Pitt had to use its last timeout.
And that didn’t help either. Kong blocked Nwokolo and it was 7-0. It went to 8-0 on a hitting error by Vazquez Gomez. Pitt challenged unsuccessfully that there was a touch and the teams changed sides.
The run finally ended on Nwokolo’s kill but it was way too little way too late.
“Man, what a game. What a season these young women had,” Pitt coach Dan Fisher said. “You know, we weren’t quite up to our standards offensively. And our passing was streaky. So was theirs.
“But I was just so proud of our heart in the fourth set. We just hung in there and found a way to win and it didn’t go our way today but just incredibly proud of this group and especially the seniors.”
It was the third match of the season between the ACC co-champions. Pitt won in five at home, and then Louisville swept late in the season.
The semifinals drew 16,735, which was not a sellout, perhaps as much because hometown favorite Nebraska did not make it as the weather was bad. It snowed much of the day and the temperature was in the mid-20s and dropping when the match started. Last year’s total of 18,755 for the national-title match is the all-time record.